High tea has evolved over the years from the Victorian era to what it is now.
The original meaning was that it was an evening meal enjoyed by the working class mainly, and sometimes the upper class, at the main dining table (the 'high' table) after they got home from working the fields, the factory, or as daily help in a domestic setting.
The menu would have consisted of 4-5 courses including soup, meat, fish, eggs, cheese, bread and butter, scones, and a sweet cake or other sweets.
Even the upper class had a high type of tea (also called 'evening tea') especially on the cooks 'night out'. She would prepare the evening meal before she left, leaving soup, a meat pie, a roast and other such dishes for one of the servants to bring out for the family. If she was fortunate enough to have the whole day off, dinner would be comprised of a soup, cold meats, and other items that the cook would have prepared ahead of time that the other staff could prepare easily enough for the family.
Over the years as the distinctions have grayed between the working class and the aristocratic class, so have the distinctions of a Victorian high tea and an afternoon tea.
Unfortunately, in more recent years, restaurants, caterers, hotels, and yes, even tea shops have indicated that high tea was an event full of pomp and circumstance and a fancier alternative to just plain old afternoon tea.
If you want to get a little technical, you can argue that it is served at a high table which is one of the indications, but, on the other hand, rarely will you find soup, a ham or roast, hearty breads, vegetable dishes and other more filling items on the menus or tables of these hotels or restaurants.
This tea event has become synonymous with a classy, elegant afternoon tea party, not because of the foods that are served but mainly because of the tables that are used. This doesn't mean that it is correct...
In public places like hotels, they may have a parlor or sitting area where afternoon tea can be served in the typical Victorian fashion ~ at low side tables like our end tables or coffee tables ~ but more often than not, it is served in the restaurant/dining area at normal dining room tables.
Because part of the definition of high tea is fulfilled, the term over the years has dwindled from meaning a full dinner, to being interchangeable with afternoon tea.
There are those of us who would like this corrected, but if you are invited to tea and it says it's a 'high tea', take note of the time to know what to expect food wise.
When you receive an invitation to a tea, due to the confusion of terms, the best indicator of what the hostess intends is to note what time the event is to take place.
An invitation that indicates the tea will start anywhere between 3 and 5 o'clock will most assuredly be an afternoon low tea, cream tea, or a light tea.
A tea that starts at 5:30 or later, will be a traditional high tea.
Especially nowadays, you will even find tea rooms and Bed and Breakfasts offering 'high afternoon tea' in the middle of the afternoon.
So, if you are still not sure, you can tactfully ask your hostess, but PLEASE don't take it on yourself to explain what is a high or low tea. She may genuinely not know, and she may have already done a lot of preparations. Proper etiquette dictates graciousness at all times, not taking every opportunity to express your superior knowledge.
IF she happens to ask your opinion of what to serve, then you can ask if she is planning a high or low tea and this will be an opening for an explanation.
For your high tea menu, it will consist of several courses. Similar to any other 'main meal', sit-down dinner, it can be casual or formal and can consist of the following courses:
This meal can be served in a few different ways.
The most formal is 'Served', by wait staff who bring out each course and offers it to each guest.
The next is 'Plated', which means each plate is prepared in the kitchen and then served to the guest. This also usually requires waiters, and it is only recommended if the guests were given an opportunity to choose what they wanted to eat ahead of time. (i.e. in the invitation)
The other choice is 'Family' style, where each course is brought out in bowls or on platters and placed on the table. Each dish is then passed one to another by the guests. This is the most common way and does not require extra help for the hostess, although asking your best friend who of course is in attendance to assist ahead of time will be of immense value to you.
Also of note, is that it is a dinner, therefore it would be appropriate to serve cocktails before dinner, wine with dinner, and sherry or a dessert wine after. This, of course, is completely up to you ~ one, all or none is acceptable.